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Judy Garland & the Power of Queer Icons

Ruby Slippers

Have you ever heard that urban legend about Judy Garland being the cause of the Stonewall riots? The story goes that she died on June 22, 1969, and the riots started on June 28 in part because queers were so distraught about losing her.

I'd always dismissed that story as a funny coincidence. Sure, Judy meant a lot to the community, but enough to incite people to riot?

Well, maybe that's not so far-fetched. Many of us are still beside ourselves with grief for Carrie Fischer, or for George Michael, or for David Bowie or Prince. These figures mean more to LGBTQs than just your average celebrity—but why?

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I think that part of it is our ongoing invisibility in mainstream media. Despite the many advances of the last few decades, it's still difficult to find prominent famous queers. So when someone from our community achieves success outside the closet, we rally around them, whether it's Wanda Sykes, Ellen DeGeneres or Neil Patrick Harris. 

But what about the celebrities who aren't actually queer? Dolly Parton, Julie Andrews or Tilda Swinton? These folks seem like they could be queer, and are generally welcomed as honorary members of the community—either because they've explicitly stated they support us, or because they've adopted a queer aesthetic. Cher might not be queer, but regularly wearing custom Bob Mackie ought to count for something. Cyndi Lauper's married to a man, but her True Colors Fund raises thousands to support LGBTQ youth. Betty White may be straight, but she was also Liberace's beard.

When it comes to queer icons, singers tend to dominate our attention: Cher, Diana Ross, Madonna. For the last half-century, these artists have been singing and speaking directly to the queer community. "I wouldn't have a career if it weren't for the gay community," Madonna once said on (appropriately enough) Ellen's show.

And there are of course many more: Tori Amos, Joan Baez, Janet Jackson, Annie Lenox and Grace Jones. Whether singing with fearless honesty, embracing sexuality or displaying campy extravagance, these singers are living out the fantasies that many queers dream.

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Then, of course, there are the acting/singing/dancing triple-threats. Bette Midler's coming back to Broadway for a Hello, Dolly! revival in 2017. It's impossible to identify a "gayest" musical, since there's a little queer in any song-and-dance routine. But this show is specifically about embracing life with its ups and downs, bouncing back from tragedy and having the courage to chase adventure. What could be gayer than that? No wonder icons like Carol Channing, Barbra Streisand, Eve Arden, Mary Martin, Pearl Bailey and Ethel Merman all played Dolly Levi.

We're also coming into 2017 with more successful out queer actors than ever before: George Takei, Harvey Fierstein, Jane Lynch, Paul Reubens and more. There was a time when conventional wisdom insisted that gay actors had to remain closeted—and indeed, many actors still cower in fear. But there's an end in sight for that attitude. Someday soon, we'll be rid of absurd closeting, such as in movies like Moment by Moment, where audiences were expected to believe in romantic chemistry between Lily Tomlin and John Travolta.

England seems to have refined queer iconography to an art form: Julie Andrews, Judy Dench, Diana Rigg, Angela Lansbury, Helen Mirren and Maggie Smith are all objects of obsession. All these women have boasted tremendous power in their roles, whether as queens or as wizards, and their strength is the epitome of defying gender expectations.

Similarly, no other country on Earth could produce dandies like Ian McKellan, Derek Jacobi, Boy George and Stephen Fry. They too have managed to turn gender roles on their heads, reminding sensitive boys everywhere that it's fine to be sensitive, frilly and cerebral. And British allies, such as Ben Cohen, remind us that queers can be welcomed into worlds like sports that were once thought inhospitable.

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Obsessing over celebrities is fun, but for many queer fans, there's something deeper happening. Despite having more visibility, rights and allies than ever before, we still struggle to find prominent queer role models. It's a big deal when a celebrity signals that we're part of the same tribe, because it means that their success, support and pride is something we can all share.

Though you may feel alone, marginalized or endangered by who you love, you can always find kindred spirits in the worship of Judy Garland. 

Matt Baume is a writer and storyteller based in Seattle. He's the author of the book Defining Marriage, which chronicles the 40-year fight for marriage equality, and he's the host of the podcast The Sewers of Paris, in which gay men share revealing personal stories about how entertainment has changed their lives. Follow him @mattbaume.

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